Barbara Hepworth’s striking sculptures are known for their organic form. The curved spaces and deep caverns within a spherical shape is instinctively associated with nature. Her expert wooden forms, sitting comfortably on lush green grass with the vivid blue sky framing their contours.
The Tate Britain knows this too – ensuring the final room sits her sculptures amongst earthly stones and a wall, covered with the image of a forest. Though the experience of peering into and mentally mapping the surface of her work is key to appreciating her sculptures, it is unfortunate that this natural context is the missing component of the Tate’s retrospective, Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture for the Modern World.
On entrance, the opening spaces invite you to build solid foundations for her work. Henry Moore (a fellow artist in Leeds School of Art) and Noam Gabo feed into Hepworth’s own exploration of the figure and the animal. Her initial output consisting of frogs and torsos, these clearly defined models slowly becoming abstract, without losing the smoothness Hepworth is famed for. The torso lacks arms and legs, merely hinting at a hip or chest emerging through the wood, akin to the slaves that break free from Michelangelo’s blocks of marble. This inevitable connection of curves and femininity leads to her Mother and Child series. The balance of two shapes, related to each other by material form establishes the further link through negative space. Hepworth’s larger ‘Mother’ includes a clear, smooth hole. The smaller ‘child’ appears to sit on her knee. The extension and balance between the two is integral to their relationship. But the vacant space signifies the mother’s transition from child herself and to the irreversible role of motherhood – something Hepworth was now accustomed to after giving birth to her son Paul in 1929.
Akin to Sonia and Robert Delauney, or Frida Kahlo and Diego Riviera, central to Hepworth’s development is her relationship with abstract painter, Ben Nicholson. The two had different processes and mixed their processes and styles together. An example of togetherness expressed through art. Hepworth’s sculpture took a two-dimensional angle, as flat sides were sharp and utilised defined lines in a manner that is captured within Nicholson’s work. Nicholson too seemed to paint profile portraits that lacked definition and angular form, akin to Hepworth’s 3D work. They also photographed each other, within books of progress, exhibited at Tate Modern. The two, within the same studio, dominated by paintings and sculptures, are part of the same group. This exhibition manages to exhibit a clear, gradual transition between each phase of Hepworth’s career. Her abstract sculptures are unique, and sit on a par between Mondrian, Moore and Gabo.
In one room, the pieces pull you in to look closer. Her curved forms, now cut by tight, taut lines. As if Nicholson’s lines are now in physical space. Half-eaten apple-cores, it is a world within a single form. Some not dissimilar to the design of modern sound-systems, as the maternal hole gapes through the centre. Sometimes the lines emerge from a single spot. As if these are, within a cave, the lines of sight. The painted interior as the accessible world we could walk amongst. The wooden exterior; the lines of wood grain, are what we can’t – what we won’t – see. The wonder of nature is external and we have yet to find many of its riches. Perhaps, this is what’s key. The lack of nature in the context of a city gallery, its dominant white walls and blank spaces, only serve to miss the environment Hepworth seeks. In a forest, you look through the gap and see a tree you never noticed or a flower blooming in the distance. In the Tate Britain, you see other viewers and grey walls, lit by a false light. Despite Hepworth’s alluring and engaging work, there is something false about all of this.
This post was originally written for Culturefly in August 2015